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Bloody British History: Oxford
By Paul Sullivan
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Paul Sullivan
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1009 BC-AD 912
THE DARKEST OF DARK AGES
AD 912 – 'This year died Æthered ealdorman of the Mercians, and King Edward took possession of London and Oxford and of all the lands which owed obedience thereto.'
This is the earliest appearance of the name 'Oxford', although the very fact that it was worth mentioning/capturing reveals that it was an established town well before this incident.
There seems little doubt that the city was around in the ninth century, during the reign of King Alfred (founding father of the University, according to apocrypha, although hard facts have remained frustratingly elusive). The closest we come to 'evidence' is the existence of Alfred-era coins bearing the name Orsnaford, which is tantalisingly close to the Saxon Oxnaford, but not close enough to convince most modern historians. Alfred's founding of University College is an interesting tale, but there is simply no historical evidence to back it up.
So it is that the early years of Oxford – doubtless coloured by the bloody turmoil of the Saxon-versus-Dane warfare that tore the land apart several times from the eighth to the tenth centuries – are a kind of Dark-Age theme park: no written records, and just a handful of suitably vague legends.
At a crossing point on a major river, the boundary between the two mighty kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, it stands to reason that there should have been an important settlement. The very fact that King Edward 'the Elder' (son of Alfred) took control of the town after the death of Æthered indicates that Oxford was of strategic importance. That year 912 marks the fortification of the city and the building of its walls – a true origin, of sorts.
Legend, undeterred by the absence of hard fact, takes Oxford much further into the past. According to the stories that used to pass for history before people started taking the subject seriously, when Alfred revivified the city in the ninth century he was building on truly ancient foundations. Under the British language name Caer Memphric, and later Rydychen or Bos Vadum (in Latin), both meaning 'oxen ford', the settlement was founded in 1009 BC by King Memphric (aka Mempricius). This was according to the wild imagination of Geoffrey of Monmouth, an early Oxford scholar most famous for his invention of various fundamental bits of the King Arthur legends. His invented Memphric wasn't a very good patron to have: he raped and pillaged his own country, causing it to melt down in civil war. He was eventually eaten by wolves during a hunting trip near Caer Memphric.
This foundation was confirmed by later historians, right through to William Stukeley in the eighteenth century, and half-heartedly allowed to pass through the gates of reason by some early nineteenth-century writers. Nathanial Whittock, writing in 1828, acknowledges John Ross (most famous for his 1607 book Britannica, which was no more than a poetical rendering of Geoffrey of Monmouth's work) for 'penetrating the thick clouds of ages past, and proving the founding of Oxford to have taken place before the erection of Solomon's Temple ... it is quite certain that a town was built on this spot in the time of the aboriginal Britons'. The castle was said to be the site of the original city.
In spite of these ancient mythical beginnings, the city played little part in the legends that plug the gap between 1009 BC and recorded history. According to Geoffrey, King Arthur was on the verge of conquering Rome in the fifth century when another outbreak of civil war back home brought him to his muddy death in the Battle of Camlann. This led to decades of weak leadership and rudderless squabbling, opening the gates to the Anglo-Saxon invaders whose descendant Alfred eventually rebuilt the faded glories of Oxford.
Disreputable origins, glorious heydays, decline and fall, death and rebirth – it's no wonder this version of Oxford's history has had such appeal over the years.
WHAT DID THE ROMANS DO FOR US?
The oddest thing about Oxford history is its lack of Romans. But, once again, this did not trouble the pseudo-historians, who invented a spot of Armageddon to set the scene for Alfred's renaissance. According to Whittock, 'in the year 50 this town suffered its most terrible downfall, being reduced to ashes by the Roman general Plautus, in the reign of Julius Caesar, and only retained its original name from its still continuing a Ford for Oxen.'
This appears to be a garbled reference to the attempts of Aulus Plautus to conquer Britain during the reign of Emperor Claudius in AD 43. Plautus occupied the south of the island and received the surrender of eleven British Kings, bringing Britain under the Roman yoke over the next four years, but there is no mention in the records of Bos Vadum.
It is more historically accurate to state that the Romans had small settlements in the immediate vicinity, north and east of the present city centre. A dog's bones were discovered in the foundations of a first-century AD wall at the site of the Churchill kilns, on the site of the Churchill Hospital. The remains were found alongside human bones – both had been placed at the foundations as sacrificial offerings. The Romano-British residents believed that the spirit of the dog would protect the wall from being overthrown. The spirit of the man was probably there to throw a few sticks during history's quieter periods.
The same Churchill site, in addition to this earliest known Oxford dog, also yielded the earliest named human in these parts: Tamesibugus. A fragment of pottery found here, and now on display in the Museum of Oxford, bears the legend 'TAMESIBUGUS FECIT', translating as 'Thames-dweller made it'.
THE EMERGENCE OF OXFORD
After the withdrawal of the Romans and the invasion of the proto-English, the old area of pre-Saxon settlements, based around modern Headington, seems to have been encompassed by a royal estate. A mere 8 miles south, St Birinus was installed as Bishop of Dorchester in the 630s, the small town being one of the most important Christian HQs in the island. St Frideswide was a living legend in these parts later in the century, and local history was in full swing. All it lacked was that all-important 'Oxford' tag.
The first death in Oxford is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year AD 924: 'This year King Edward died among the Mercians at Farndon; and very shortly, about sixteen days after this, Elward his son died at Oxford; and their bodies lie at Winchester.'
This was the beginning of a long association between Oxford and royalty, based for many centuries on the twelfth century royal palace at Beaumont (source of the name of modern Beaumont Street). Its site is marked with a plaque recording the birth here of Richard the Lionheart and King John; by which time Oxford had been baptised in blood several times over.CHAPTER 2
THE CURSE OF SAINT FRIDESWIDE
Princess Frideswide (more properly, but less pronounceably, Fritheswithe) was born in around 665 AD, the daughter of King Didan and Queen Sefrida, who ruled a region equivalent to modern-day Berkshire and a big chunk of south-west Oxfordshire. The royal family were Christians, in an era when many of the neighbours were still invoking Germanic pagan deities Woden, Thunor and Freya rather than Father, Son and Holy Ghost. So keen were Didan and Sefrida on the newly imported religion that they put Frideswide under the tutelage of local holy woman Ælfgith, where she became enlightened both academically and spiritually. It was a case of brains and beauty, as Frideswide was said to be in the Helen of Troy league when it came to good looks.
After Ælfgith's death Frideswide returned to the palace, and for an unorthodox birthday present asked her father to build a church on the edge of Oxford (a few centuries before the city appears in any historical document). He complied, and Frideswide took twelve likeminded girls and fitted the place out as a convent. The proto-nuns didn't opt for the cloistered life; but remaining visible to the wicked world was nearly Frideswide's downfall.
Pagan lust is not an emotion to be trifled with. When Algar, the heathen King of neighbouring Mercia, heard of the royal nun's beauty he took his pagan posse over the border to seek her hand, and all the other bits, in marriage. King Didan didn't do much to stop him, Algar being lord of a sizeable kingdom, and a definite 'catch'. But Frideswide announced that her holy vow of chastity removed her permanently from the matrimonial market. In response, Algar announced that if she would not marry him willingly he would throw her over the back of his horse, carry her to said market and marry her at sword-point.
Recognising a violent sexual metaphor when she saw one, Frideswide decided it was time to flee. Algar's men made a rush to capture her, but were struck blind by divine intervention. The princess then put on her running shoes, and reaching the Thames she hijacked a boat and disappeared into the night. The place is most commonly given as Frilsham in Berkshire, but some say she ended up at Bampton in Oxfordshire; others cite the location as Binsey (now part of Oxford).
Here Frideswide hid in a pig shed in the middle of an oak wood. The swineherd allowed her to look after his animals, a novel way for a holy woman to bring home the bacon, and she made the best of a bad job by praying to God for a clean water supply. A well obligingly sprang up, and she fed and watered herself here for three years.
When this time had elapsed, Frideswide thought it safe to tiptoe back to the nunnery. But her twelve acolytes had hardly had time to uncork a celebratory bottle of communion wine before Algar stormed back to the city, his spies having revealed that the beautiful princess had returned. King Didan risked everything by sending an army to thwart the merciless Mercian, but Algar's host was too strong. The battered Berkshire men retreated, and the Mercians prepared to burn Oxford to the ground. Furthermore, Algar announced, he would not only ravish the unfortunate Frideswide in revenge for her disobedience, but would allow his men to have their extremely wicked ways with her too. Torches were lit, the pre-Oxford Oxford cursed itself for being made of wood and thatch, and all hope fled. But Frideswide directed some well-chosen prayers at Saints Catherine and Cecilia – both of whom had chosen death over ravishment – and they swiftly intervened. There was a flash of lightning, and this time it was Algar who was struck blind.
Dismayed at this second show of divine long-sightedness, the Mercians called a halt to their attack. Frideswide made Algar swear that he would pursue her no longer; and receiving his promise she returned to her holy life, giving warning that henceforth any King who attempted to enter the city with violent intent would suffer the same fate as Algar. For complying with these terms, Algar was given back his sight.
Frideswide lived out her remaining years in peace, her fame and holiness acting as a magnet for donations to the priory, which soon became rich. It also became a bit big and bustling for Frideswide, who ended her days in a smaller nunnery at Binsey, where she caused a second magical holy well to spring forth - the still-flowing Treacle Well. The sticky name simply means 'medicinal', 'treacle' being a word for a healing balm. Pilgrims with all manner of ailments would visit the spot to seek a cure. Local wag Lewis Carroll found the name irresistible, using it as the basis for the genuinely sticky Treacle Well in Alice in Wonderland.
She died there in AD 735, becoming a saint some 400 years later.CHAPTER 3
THE VIKINGS ARE COMING!
During the tenth and early eleventh centuries the south of England was raped, pillaged and plundered by Vikings in a pitiless and relentless onslaught that would be hard to exaggerate. Conjure every Viking cliché you can think of – apart from the horned helmets, which they never wore – and you'll be close to the truth.
By this time, Kings had been following the same course of action for a century. As soon as the Danes landed they waited a bit to see how violent they were going to be and how far they were going to invade from their established base on the Isle of Wight, and then bribed them into temporary submission with money ('Danegeld') and food. This usually cost them a major chunk of the local harvest, and an amount of money on a scale reminiscent of a city banker's ill-gotten bonus.
Each time this occurred, the Danish generals promised to make peace, only to repeat the whole thing a few years later. By 1002, the chronicle writers of the time had run out of words to describe the horrors of a cocky, lusty army advancing like priapic locusts through the countryside of southern England with nothing to fear except indigestion and venereal disease.
In 1002 Ethelred II was King. He was nicknamed Ethelred the Unready (his name and title together translating as 'royal counsel uncounselled'). His counsel, or lack of it, was to pay the Danes a purse-boggling sum of £24,000 (that's the city banker's salary, bonus and pension combined). But the man Ethelred sent to present the enemy with this colossal back-hander was Ealdorman Leofsy, of Danish parentage, and about as loyal as a pet cat with a grudge. Soon afterwards, Leofsy killed Ethelred's High Steward Eafy and was banished from court, amidst rumours that the Danes planned to keep the money, kill Ethelred and steal his kingdom. The luckless King suffered a classic case of 'I want my money back!'
COCKLES AND MUSCLES
The north of England was still a Danish stronghold at this point in history, and many cities in the south, including Oxford, had large Danish communities too. Some of them were second generation, and were a far easier target than their sword and axe-wielding cousins in the Isle of Wight fleet. Ethelred prepared a statement and had it sent to various towns and cities, ordering reprisals against the Danes in a concerted English act of violence on St Brice's Day, 13 November 1002. This was the traditional time for slaughtering livestock and bull baiting, and Ethelred hoped to catch the mood of bloody necessity.
In Oxford the call to arms was taken up enthusiastically, and the local Danes, vastly outnumbered, fled to the sanctuary of St Frideswide's church on the site of modern Christ Church Cathedral. They were scapegoats, victims of ethnic cleansing; but given the recent record of their ever-invading kinsmen, Viking apologists were very thin on the ground.
In 1004 Ethelred described the ensuing events matter-of-factly in a royal Charter which was drawn up to argue the case for rebuilding the destroyed church of St Frideswide's:
... to the effect that all the Danes who sprang up in this island, sprouting like cockle [a type of flower] amongst the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination, and thus this decree was to be put into effect even as far as death, those Danes who dwelt in [Oxford], striving to escape death, entered this sanctuary of Christ, having broken by force the doors and bolts, and resolved to make refuge and defence for themselves therein against the people of the town and the suburbs; but when all the people in pursuit strove, forced by necessity, to drive them out, and could not, they set fire to the planks and burnt, as it seems, this church with its ornaments and its books. Afterwards, by God's aid, it was renewed by me.
The 'just extermination' did indeed involve burning down the church, its Viking contents and its fixtures and fittings (hence the need for a Grand Designs-like royal Charter). A few of the Danes tried to break out and flee, but they were killed on the spot. The arson was excused on the grounds that the people left inside had refused to come out and face the armed, murderous mob, a decision not altogether unfathomable.
The massacre inspired old adversary King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, to invade and add 'England' to his list a few years later. His sister Gunnhild, who was one of the hostages handed to Ethelred to seal the temporary peace before the massacre, had been killed, and he wanted revenge. A famine in 1005 delayed the Viking reprisals (a famine probably caused by the Danes' unsupportable demands on the English farmers), but in 1013 they made their move. Sweyn invaded, and conquered.
King Sweyn is written out of many history books, in spite of reigning until his death in 1014, when his son Cnut took over. The future wasn't looking very English at that point, until Cnut pulled off a crowd-pleasing political coup, marrying Emma, princess of the English (Wessex branch) royal family, giving Anglophiles a straw to clutch at.CHAPTER 4
OXFORD IN RUINS
From the moment William the Conqueror first set foot in Westminster Abbey for his coronation in 1066, to the post-mortem moment when his putrefying body exploded in that same edifice twenty-two years later, the portents were bad. The streets outside the abbey during the crowning were thick with Norman soldiers, expecting Saxon insurrection at any moment. Inside the abbey, the press-ganged congregation was asked, first by the Bishop of Coutances in French, and then by the Bishop of York in English, if it supported the right of Guillaume le Bâtard, Duke of Normandy, to reign in England as King William I. Both sides shouted in the affirmative. Very loudly.
Excerpted from Bloody British History: Oxford by Paul Sullivan. Copyright © 2012 Paul Sullivan. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1009 BC-AD 912 The Darkest of Dark Ages,
AD 665-735 The Curse of Saint Frideswide,
AD 900-1000 The Vikings Are Coming!,
AD 1066-1086 Oxford in Ruins,
AD 1135 All War and No Peace,
AD 1238 Kill the Pope's Ambassador!,
AD 1318 The Real Edward II,
AD 1355 Wining and Dying in Oxford,
AD 1535-81 Religion: A Martyr of Life and Death,
AD 1577 Black Assize and Black Death,
AD 1643-5 The Sieges of Oxford,
AD 1642-5 Anthony Wood: Eye-Witness to War,
AD 1645-6 We Surrender!,
AD 1736 Oxford's First Whodunnit,
AD 1714-1748 Riot at the King's Head Tavern!,
AD 1791 Condemned to Hang – Forever!,
AD 1832-1854 Death in Victorian Oxford!,
AD 1867 Death to Mayor Grubb!,
AD 1827-1893 Death and Disorder at St Giles' Fair,
AD 1878-1910 Minor Misdemeanours at the OED,
AD 1917-1945 Oxford in Shock: The War Years,